For the first time in 36 years, Mark Wittwer was cooking pork chops at the Kirkland Fourth of July celebration without his father around.
“It’s different. But, you know, when somebody’s been around for 95 years, it’s acceptable. It’s a big loss, but it’s all right. He’s missed; he was always doing something,” said Wittwer, who lives on a farm near Kirkland.
Wittwer’s father, Walter, passed away in November. He had volunteered at the Kirkland Fourth of July celebration since its beginning in the late 1940s and never stopped.
Every year at six in the morning, Walter would be stirring pancake batter – even last year at 95 years old.
“The guy who is cooking hamburgers, his grandson came down this year and started the batter. He’s 15. I told him, ‘You’ve only got 80 more years of stirring that batter,’” Lion’s Club member Jeff Anderberg said.
To remember Walter Wittwer, the Lions Club members hung his vest during the pork chop dinner, which he always helped with, too.
“A lot of people saw it and liked it. It was loaded with pins,” Mark Wittwer said.
The Kirkland Lions Club hosted another successful Fourth of July celebration over this past holiday weekend, as the weather once again cooperated. The 66-year tradition, the longest continuous Fourth of July festival in the state of Illinois, has come to define the small town southeast of Rockford.
“It’s a large event for a very small community. I don’t know if I believe in things putting places on the map, but people know where Kirkland is because of the Fourth of July and the fireworks, and the pork chop sandwiches and the pork chop dinners,” Wittwer said.
People converged on the tiny town from all over during the three-day event. Families were there Saturday from Rockford, Chicago, Champaign, and lots of places in between.
Kelly Hyzer from Belvidere came with her husband, Ed, her daughter, Stephanie, and some friends they met at church. This was their fourth year attending thecelebration.
“We come for the fireworks, and we just walk around and see what’s going on,” Hyzer said.
The festival also serves as a homecoming for former Kirkland residents. One high school class held their reunion Saturday afternoon. They made sure to end it early enough so that everyone could come to the fireworks.
“Everybody comes home for the Fourth of July. It doesn’t matter where you live. In fact, Norm Rich from the class of ’75 who lives in California was here this year,” Anderberg said.
Other than the food, drinks and carnival rides, everything at the festival is free. Family-oriented entertainment on the park stage Saturday included a ventriloquist, dance demonstrations, a magician and the high school pep band and jazz band.
Then there were, of course, the fireworks. To conclude the festivities, Back Country Roads, a country cover band from DeKalb, rocked the beer garden late into the night.
Kyle Happ from Waterman was there with his sons, Landon, 4, and Camdyn, 7 months, and his fiancé, Shelby Hettel. They decided to come to Kirkland instead of Rib Fest in Naperville, because they thought it would be more family-friendly.
That would not have surprised Anderberg.
“Not to sound corny, but we’re that whole Americana thing. There’s that home feel. It’s still a small town family celebration," he said.